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Island Nights' Entertainments

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Island Nights' Entertainments, by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Island Nights' Entertainments, by Robert Louis Stevenson
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org
Title: Island Nights' Entertainments
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Release Date: August 28, 2008 Language: English Character set encoding: UTF-8
[eBook #329]
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK ISLAND NIGHTS' ENTERTAINMENTS***
Transcribed from the 1905 Chatto and Windus Edition by David Price, email ccx074@pglaf.org
Island Nights’ Entertainments
Contents: The Beach of Falesá A south sea bridal The Ban The Missionary Devil-work Night in the bush The Bottle Imp The Isle of voices
THE BEACH OF FALESÁ.
CHAPTER I. A SOUTH SEA BRIDAL.
I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning. The moon was to the west, setting, but still broad and bright. To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond. The land breeze blew in our faces, and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things besides, but these were the most plain; and the chill of it set me sneezing. I should say I had been for years on a low island near the line, living for the most part solitary among natives. Here was a fresh experience: even the ...
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Island Nights' Entertainments, by Robert Louis
Stevenson
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Island Nights' Entertainments, by Robert
Louis Stevenson
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with
almost no restrictions whatsoever.
You may copy it, give it away or
re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included
with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org
Title: Island Nights' Entertainments
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Release Date: August 28, 2008
[eBook #329]
Language: English
Character set encoding: UTF-8
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK ISLAND NIGHTS' ENTERTAINMENTS***
Transcribed from the 1905 Chatto and Windus Edition by David Price, email
ccx074@pglaf.org
Island Nights’ Entertainments
Contents:
The Beach of Falesá
A south sea bridal
The Ban
The Missionary
Devil-work
Night in the bush
The Bottle Imp
The Isle of voices
THE BEACH OF FALESÁ.
CHAPTER I. A SOUTH SEA BRIDAL.
I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning. The moon was to
the west, setting, but still broad and bright. To the east, and right amidships of
the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond. The land
breeze blew in our faces, and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things
besides, but these were the most plain; and the chill of it set me sneezing. I
should say I had been for years on a low island near the line, living for the most
part solitary among natives. Here was a fresh experience: even the tongue
would be quite strange to me; and the look of these woods and mountains, and
the rare smell of them, renewed my blood.
The captain blew out the binnacle lamp.
“There!” said he, “there goes a bit of smoke, Mr. Wiltshire, behind the break of
the reef. That’s Falesá, where your station is, the last village to the east;
nobody lives to windward—I don’t know why. Take my glass, and you can
make the houses out.”
I took the glass; and the shores leaped nearer, and I saw the tangle of the
woods and the breach of the surf, and the brown roofs and the black insides of
houses peeped among the trees.
“Do you catch a bit of white there to the east’ard?” the captain continued.
“That’s your house. Coral built, stands high, verandah you could walk on three
abreast; best station in the South Pacific. When old Adams saw it, he took and
shook me by the hand. ‘I’ve dropped into a soft thing here,’ says he.—‘So you
have,’ says I, ‘and time too!’ Poor Johnny! I never saw him again but the once,
and then he had changed his tune—couldn’t get on with the natives, or the
whites, or something; and the next time we came round there he was dead and
buried. I took and put up a bit of a stick to him: ‘John Adams,
obit
eighteen and
sixty-eight. Go thou and do likewise.’ I missed that man. I never could see
much harm in Johnny.”
“What did he die of?” I inquired.
“Some kind of sickness,” says the captain. “It appears it took him sudden.
Seems he got up in the night, and filled up on Pain-Killer and Kennedy’s
Discovery. No go: he was booked beyond Kennedy. Then he had tried to
open a case of gin. No go again: not strong enough. Then he must have
turned to and run out on the verandah, and capsized over the rail. When they
found him, the next day, he was clean crazy—carried on all the time about
somebody watering his copra. Poor John!”
“Was it thought to be the island?” I asked.
“Well, it was thought to be the island, or the trouble, or something,” he replied.
“I never could hear but what it was a healthy place. Our last man, Vigours,
never turned a hair. He left because of the beach—said he was afraid of Black
Jack and Case and Whistling Jimmie, who was still alive at the time, but got
drowned soon afterward when drunk. As for old Captain Randall, he’s been
here any time since eighteen-forty, forty-five. I never could see much harm in
Billy, nor much change. Seems as if he might live to be Old Kafoozleum. No, I
guess it’s healthy.”
“There’s a boat coming now,” said I. “She’s right in the pass; looks to be a
sixteen-foot whale; two white men in the stern sheets.”
“That’s the boat that drowned Whistling Jimmie!” cried the Captain; “let’s see
the glass. Yes, that’s Case, sure enough, and the darkie. They’ve got a
gallows bad reputation, but you know what a place the beach is for talking. My
belief, that Whistling Jimmie was the worst of the trouble; and he’s gone to
glory, you see. What’ll you bet they ain’t after gin? Lay you five to two they
take six cases.”
When these two traders came aboard I was pleased with the looks of them at
once, or, rather, with the looks of both, and the speech of one. I was sick for
white neighbours after my four years at the line, which I always counted years
of prison; getting tabooed, and going down to the Speak House to see and get
it taken off; buying gin and going on a break, and then repenting; sitting in the
house at night with the lamp for company; or walking on the beach and
wondering what kind of a fool to call myself for being where I was. There were
no other whites upon my island, and when I sailed to the next, rough customers
made the most of the society. Now to see these two when they came aboard
was a pleasure. One was a negro, to be sure; but they were both rigged out
smart in striped pyjamas and straw hats, and Case would have passed muster
in a city. He was yellow and smallish, had a hawk’s nose to his face, pale
eyes, and his beard trimmed with scissors. No man knew his country, beyond
he was of English speech; and it was clear he came of a good family and was
splendidly educated. He was accomplished too; played the accordion first-rate;
and give him a piece of string or a cork or a pack of cards, and he could show
you tricks equal to any professional. He could speak, when he chose, fit for a
drawing-room; and when he chose he could blaspheme worse than a Yankee
boatswain, and talk smart to sicken a Kanaka. The way he thought would pay
best at the moment, that was Case’s way, and it always seemed to come
natural, and like as if he was born to it. He had the courage of a lion and the
cunning of a rat; and if he’s not in hell to-day, there’s no such place. I know but
one good point to the man: that he was fond of his wife, and kind to her. She
was a Samoa woman, and dyed her hair red, Samoa style; and when he came
to die (as I have to tell of) they found one strange thing—that he had made a
will, like a Christian, and the widow got the lot: all his, they said, and all Black
Jack’s, and the most of Billy Randall’s in the bargain, for it was Case that kept
the books. So she went off home in the schooner
Manu’a
, and does the lady to
this day in her own place.
But of all this on that first morning I knew no more than a fly. Case used me like
a gentleman and like a friend, made me welcome to Falesá, and put his
services at my disposal, which was the more helpful from my ignorance of the
native. All the better part of the day we sat drinking better acquaintance in the
cabin, and I never heard a man talk more to the point. There was no smarter
trader, and none dodgier, in the islands. I thought Falesá seemed to be the
right kind of a place; and the more I drank the lighter my heart. Our last trader
had fled the place at half an hour’s notice, taking a chance passage in a labour
ship from up west. The captain, when he came, had found the station closed,
the keys left with the native pastor, and a letter from the runaway, confessing he
was fairly frightened of his life. Since then the firm had not been represented,
and of course there was no cargo. The wind, besides, was fair, the captain
hoped he could make his next island by dawn, with a good tide, and the
business of landing my trade was gone about lively. There was no call for me
to fool with it, Case said; nobody would touch my things, everyone was honest
in Falesá, only about chickens or an odd knife or an odd stick of tobacco; and
the best I could do was to sit quiet till the vessel left, then come straight to his
house, see old Captain Randall, the father of the beach, take pot-luck, and go
home to sleep when it got dark. So it was high noon, and the schooner was
under way before I set my foot on shore at Falesá.
I had a glass or two on board; I was just off a long cruise, and the ground
heaved under me like a ship’s deck. The world was like all new painted; my
foot went along to music; Falesá might have been Fiddler’s Green, if there is
such a place, and more’s the pity if there isn’t! It was good to foot the grass, to
look aloft at the green mountains, to see the men with their green wreaths and
the women in their bright dresses, red and blue. On we went, in the strong sun
and the cool shadow, liking both; and all the children in the town came trotting
after with their shaven heads and their brown bodies, and raising a thin kind of
a cheer in our wake, like crowing poultry.
“By-the-bye,” says Case, “we must get you a wife.”
“That’s so,” said I; “I had forgotten.”
There was a crowd of girls about us, and I pulled myself up and looked among
them like a Bashaw. They were all dressed out for the sake of the ship being
in; and the women of Falesá are a handsome lot to see. If they have a fault,
they are a trifle broad in the beam; and I was just thinking so when Case
touched me.
“That’s pretty,” says he.
I saw one coming on the other side alone. She had been fishing; all she wore
was a chemise, and it was wetted through. She was young and very slender
for an island maid, with a long face, a high forehead, and a shy, strange,
blindish look, between a cat’s and a baby’s.
“Who’s she?” said I. “She’ll do.”
“That’s Uma,” said Case, and he called her up and spoke to her in the native. I
didn’t know what he said; but when he was in the midst she looked up at me
quick and timid, like a child dodging a blow, then down again, and presently
smiled. She had a wide mouth, the lips and the chin cut like any statue’s; and
the smile came out for a moment and was gone. Then she stood with her head
bent, and heard Case to an end, spoke back in the pretty Polynesian voice,
looking him full in the face, heard him again in answer, and then with an
obeisance started off. I had just a share of the bow, but never another shot of
her eye, and there was no more word of smiling.
“I guess it’s all right,” said Case. “I guess you can have her. I’ll make it square
with the old lady. You can have your pick of the lot for a plug of tobacco,” he
added, sneering.
I suppose it was the smile stuck in my memory, for I spoke back sharp. “She
doesn’t look that sort,” I cried.
“I don’t know that she is,” said Case. “I believe she’s as right as the mail.
Keeps to herself, don’t go round with the gang, and that. O no, don’t you
misunderstand me—Uma’s on the square.” He spoke eager, I thought, and that
surprised and pleased me. “Indeed,” he went on, “I shouldn’t make so sure of
getting her, only she cottoned to the cut of your jib. All you have to do is to keep
dark and let me work the mother my own way; and I’ll bring the girl round to the
captain’s for the marriage.”
I didn’t care for the word marriage, and I said so.
“Oh, there’s nothing to hurt in the marriage,” says he. “Black Jack’s the
chaplain.”
By this time we had come in view of the house of these three white men; for a
negro is counted a white man, and so is a Chinese! a strange idea, but
common in the islands. It was a board house with a strip of rickety verandah.
The store was to the front, with a counter, scales, and the poorest possible
display of trade: a case or two of tinned meats; a barrel of hard bread; a few
bolts of cotton stuff, not to be compared with mine; the only thing well
represented being the contraband, firearms and liquor. “If these are my only
rivals,” thinks I, “I should do well in Falesá.” Indeed, there was only the one
way they could touch me, and that was with the guns and drink.
In the back room was old Captain Randall, squatting on the floor native fashion,
fat and pale, naked to the waist, grey as a badger, and his eyes set with drink.
His body was covered with grey hair and crawled over by flies; one was in the
corner of his eye—he never heeded; and the mosquitoes hummed about the
man like bees. Any clean-minded man would have had the creature out at
once and buried him; and to see him, and think he was seventy, and remember
he had once commanded a ship, and come ashore in his smart togs, and talked
big in bars and consulates, and sat in club verandahs, turned me sick and
sober.
He tried to get up when I came in, but that was hopeless; so he reached me a
hand instead, and stumbled out some salutation.
“Papa’s
[1]
pretty full this morning,” observed Case. “We’ve had an epidemic
here; and Captain Randall takes gin for a prophylactic—don’t you, Papa?”
“Never took such a thing in my life!” cried the captain indignantly. “Take gin for
my health’s sake, Mr. Wha’s-ever-your-name—’s a precautionary measure.”
“That’s all right, Papa,” said Case. “But you’ll have to brace up. There’s going
to be a marriage—Mr. Wiltshire here is going to get spliced.”
The old man asked to whom.
“To Uma,” said Case.
“Uma!” cried the captain. “Wha’s he want Uma for? ’s he come here for his
health, anyway? Wha’ ’n hell’s he want Uma for?”
“Dry up, Papa,” said Case. “’Tain’t you that’s to marry her. I guess you’re not
her godfather and godmother. I guess Mr. Wiltshire’s going to please himself.”
With that he made an excuse to me that he must move about the marriage, and
left me alone with the poor wretch that was his partner and (to speak truth) his
gull. Trade and station belonged both to Randall; Case and the negro were
parasites; they crawled and fed upon him like the flies, he none the wiser.
Indeed, I have no harm to say of Billy Randall beyond the fact that my gorge
rose at him, and the time I now passed in his company was like a nightmare.
The room was stifling hot and full of flies; for the house was dirty and low and
small, and stood in a bad place, behind the village, in the borders of the bush,
and sheltered from the trade. The three men’s beds were on the floor, and a
litter of pans and dishes. There was no standing furniture; Randall, when he
was violent, tearing it to laths. There I sat and had a meal which was served us
by Case’s wife; and there I was entertained all day by that remains of man, his
tongue stumbling among low old jokes and long old stories, and his own
wheezy laughter always ready, so that he had no sense of my depression. He
was nipping gin all the while. Sometimes he fell asleep, and awoke again,
whimpering and shivering, and every now and again he would ask me why I
wanted to marry Uma. “My friend,” I was telling myself all day, “you must not
come to be an old gentleman like this.”
It might be four in the afternoon, perhaps, when the back door was thrust slowly
open, and a strange old native woman crawled into the house almost on her
belly. She was swathed in black stuff to her heels; her hair was grey in
swatches; her face was tattooed, which was not the practice in that island; her
eyes big and bright and crazy. These she fixed upon me with a rapt expression
that I saw to be part acting. She said no plain word, but smacked and mumbled
with her lips, and hummed aloud, like a child over its Christmas pudding. She
came straight across the house, heading for me, and, as soon as she was
alongside, caught up my hand and purred and crooned over it like a great cat.
From this she slipped into a kind of song.
“Who the devil’s this?” cried I, for the thing startled me.
“It’s Fa’avao,” says Randall; and I saw he had hitched along the floor into the
farthest corner.
“You ain’t afraid of her?” I cried.
“Me ’fraid!” cried the captain. “My dear friend, I defy her! I don’t let her put her
foot in here, only I suppose ’s different to-day, for the marriage. ’s Uma’s
mother.”
“Well, suppose it is; what’s she carrying on about?” I asked, more irritated,
perhaps more frightened, than I cared to show; and the captain told me she was
making up a quantity of poetry in my praise because I was to marry Uma. “All
right, old lady,” says I, with rather a failure of a laugh, “anything to oblige. But
when you’re done with my hand, you might let me know.”
She did as though she understood; the song rose into a cry, and stopped; the
woman crouched out of the house the same way that she came in, and must
have plunged straight into the bush, for when I followed her to the door she had
already vanished.
“These are rum manners,” said I.
“’s a rum crowd,” said the captain, and, to my surprise, he made the sign of the
cross on his bare bosom.
“Hillo!” says I, “are you a Papist?”
He repudiated the idea with contempt. “Hard-shell Baptis’,” said he. “But, my
dear friend, the Papists got some good ideas too; and tha’ ’s one of ’em. You
take my advice, and whenever you come across Uma or Fa’avao or Vigours, or
any of that crowd, you take a leaf out o’ the priests, and do what I do. Savvy?”
says he, repeated the sign, and winked his dim eye at me. “No,
sir
!” he broke
out again, “no Papists here!” and for a long time entertained me with his
religious opinions.
I must have been taken with Uma from the first, or I should certainly have fled
from that house, and got into the clean air, and the clean sea, or some
convenient river—though, it’s true, I was committed to Case; and, besides, I
could never have held my head up in that island if I had run from a girl upon my
wedding-night.
The sun was down, the sky all on fire, and the lamp had been some time
lighted, when Case came back with Uma and the negro. She was dressed and
scented; her kilt was of fine tapa, looking richer in the folds than any silk; her
bust, which was of the colour of dark honey, she wore bare only for some half a
dozen necklaces of seeds and flowers; and behind her ears and in her hair she
had the scarlet flowers of the hibiscus. She showed the best bearing for a bride
conceivable, serious and still; and I thought shame to stand up with her in that
mean house and before that grinning negro. I thought shame, I say; for the
mountebank was dressed with a big paper collar, the book he made believe to
read from was an odd volume of a novel, and the words of his service not fit to
be set down. My conscience smote me when we joined hands; and when she
got her certificate I was tempted to throw up the bargain and confess. Here is
the document. It was Case that wrote it, signatures and all, in a leaf out of the
ledger:—
This is to certify that Uma, daughter of Fa’avao of Falesá, Island of --
-, is illegally married to Mr. John Wiltshire for one week, and Mr.
John Wiltshire is at liberty to send her to hell when he pleases.
John Blackamoar.
Chaplain to the hulks.
Extracted from the Register
by William T. Randall,
Master Mariner.
A nice paper to put in a girl’s hand and see her hide away like gold. A man
might easily feel cheap for less. But it was the practice in these parts, and (as I
told myself) not the least the fault of us white men, but of the missionaries. If
they had let the natives be, I had never needed this deception, but taken all the
wives I wished, and left them when I pleased, with a clear conscience.
The more ashamed I was, the more hurry I was in to be gone; and our desires
thus jumping together, I made the less remark of a change in the traders. Case
had been all eagerness to keep me; now, as though he had attained a purpose,
he seemed all eagerness to have me go. Uma, he said, could show me to my
house, and the three bade us farewell indoors.
The night was nearly come; the village smelt of trees and flowers and the sea
and bread-fruit-cooking; there came a fine roll of sea from the reef, and from a
distance, among the woods and houses, many pretty sounds of men and
children. It did me good to breathe free air; it did me good to be done with the
captain and see, instead, the creature at my side. I felt for all the world as
though she were some girl at home in the Old Country, and, forgetting myself
for the minute, took her hand to walk with. Her fingers nestled into mine, I heard
her breathe deep and quick, and all at once she caught my hand to her face
and pressed it there. “You good!” she cried, and ran ahead of me, and stopped
and looked back and smiled, and ran ahead of me again, thus guiding me
through the edge of the bush, and by a quiet way to my own house.
The truth is, Case had done the courting for me in style—told her I was mad to
have her, and cared nothing for the consequence; and the poor soul, knowing
that which I was still ignorant of, believed it, every word, and had her head nigh
turned with vanity and gratitude. Now, of all this I had no guess; I was one of
those most opposed to any nonsense about native women, having seen so
many whites eaten up by their wives’ relatives, and made fools of in the
bargain; and I told myself I must make a stand at once, and bring her to her
bearings. But she looked so quaint and pretty as she ran away and then
awaited me, and the thing was done so like a child or a kind dog, that the best I
could do was just to follow her whenever she went on, to listen for the fall of her
bare feet, and to watch in the dusk for the shining of her body. And there was
another thought came in my head. She played kitten with me now when we
were alone; but in the house she had carried it the way a countess might, so
proud and humble. And what with her dress—for all there was so little of it, and
that native enough—what with her fine tapa and fine scents, and her red
flowers and seeds, that were quite as bright as jewels, only larger—it came
over me she was a kind of countess really, dressed to hear great singers at a
concert, and no even mate for a poor trader like myself.
She was the first in the house; and while I was still without I saw a match flash
and the lamplight kindle in the windows. The station was a wonderful fine
place, coral built, with quite a wide verandah, and the main room high and
wide. My chests and cases had been piled in, and made rather of a mess; and
there, in the thick of the confusion, stood Uma by the table, awaiting me. Her
shadow went all the way up behind her into the hollow of the iron roof; she
stood against it bright, the lamplight shining on her skin. I stopped in the door,
and she looked at me, not speaking, with eyes that were eager and yet
daunted; then she touched herself on the bosom.
“Me—your wifie,” she said. It had never taken me like that before; but the want
of her took and shook all through me, like the wind in the luff of a sail.
I could not speak if I had wanted; and if I could, I would not. I was ashamed to
be so much moved about a native, ashamed of the marriage too, and the
certificate she had treasured in her kilt; and I turned aside and made believe to
rummage among my cases. The first thing I lighted on was a case of gin, the
only one that I had brought; and, partly for the girl’s sake, and partly for horror of
the recollections of old Randall, took a sudden resolve. I prized the lid off. One
by one I drew the bottles with a pocket corkscrew, and sent Uma out to pour the
stuff from the verandah.
She came back after the last, and looked at me puzzled like.
“No good,” said I, for I was now a little better master of my tongue. “Man he
drink, he no good.”
She agreed with this, but kept considering. “Why you bring him?” she asked
presently. “Suppose you no want drink, you no bring him, I think.”
“That’s all right,” said I. “One time I want drink too much; now no want. You
see, I no savvy I get one little wifie. Suppose I drink gin, my little wifie he ’fraid.”
To speak to her kindly was about more than I was fit for; I had made my vow I
would never let on to weakness with a native, and I had nothing for it but to
stop.
She stood looking gravely down at me where I sat by the open case. “I think
you good man,” she said. And suddenly she had fallen before me on the floor.
“I belong you all-e-same pig!” she cried.
CHAPTER II. THE BAN.
I came on the verandah just before the sun rose on the morrow. My house was
the last on the east; there was a cape of woods and cliffs behind that hid the
sunrise. To the west, a swift cold river ran down, and beyond was the green of
the village, dotted with cocoa-palms and breadfruits and houses. The shutters
were some of them down and some open; I saw the mosquito bars still
stretched, with shadows of people new-awakened sitting up inside; and all over
the green others were stalking silent, wrapped in their many-coloured sleeping
clothes like Bedouins in Bible pictures. It was mortal still and solemn and
chilly, and the light of the dawn on the lagoon was like the shining of a fire.
But the thing that troubled me was nearer hand. Some dozen young men and
children made a piece of a half-circle, flanking my house: the river divided
them, some were on the near side, some on the far, and one on a boulder in the
midst; and they all sat silent, wrapped in their sheets, and stared at me and my
house as straight as pointer dogs. I thought it strange as I went out. When I
had bathed and come back again, and found them all there, and two or three
more along with them, I thought it stranger still. What could they see to gaze at
in my house, I wondered, and went in.
But the thought of these starers stuck in my mind, and presently I came out
again. The sun was now up, but it was still behind the cape of woods. Say a
quarter of an hour had come and gone. The crowd was greatly increased, the
far bank of the river was lined for quite a way—perhaps thirty grown folk, and of
children twice as many, some standing, some squatted on the ground, and all
staring at my house. I have seen a house in a South Sea village thus
surrounded, but then a trader was thrashing his wife inside, and she singing
out. Here was nothing: the stove was alight, the smoke going up in a Christian
manner; all was shipshape and Bristol fashion. To be sure, there was a
stranger come, but they had a chance to see that stranger yesterday, and took it
quiet enough. What ailed them now? I leaned my arms on the rail and stared
back. Devil a wink they had in them! Now and then I could see the children
chatter, but they spoke so low not even the hum of their speaking came my
length. The rest were like graven images: they stared at me, dumb and
sorrowful, with their bright eyes; and it came upon me things would look not
much different if I were on the platform of the gallows, and these good folk had
come to see me hanged.
I felt I was getting daunted, and began to be afraid I looked it, which would
never do. Up I stood, made believe to stretch myself, came down the verandah
stair, and strolled towards the river. There went a short buzz from one to the
other, like what you hear in theatres when the curtain goes up; and some of the
nearest gave back the matter of a pace. I saw a girl lay one hand on a young
man and make a gesture upward with the other; at the same time she said
something in the native with a gasping voice. Three little boys sat beside my
path, where, I must pass within three feet of them. Wrapped in their sheets, with
their shaved heads and bits of top-knots, and queer faces, they looked like
figures on a chimney-piece. Awhile they sat their ground, solemn as judges. I
came up hand over fist, doing my five knots, like a man that meant business;
and I thought I saw a sort of a wink and gulp in the three faces. Then one
jumped up (he was the farthest off) and ran for his mammy. The other two,
trying to follow suit, got foul, came to ground together bawling, wriggled right
out of their sheets mother-naked, and in a moment there were all three of them
scampering for their lives and singing out like pigs. The natives, who would
never let a joke slip, even at a burial, laughed and let up, as short as a dog’s
bark.
They say it scares a man to be alone. No such thing. What scares him in the
dark or the high bush is that he can’t make sure, and there might be an army at
his elbow. What scares him worst is to be right in the midst of a crowd, and
have no guess of what they’re driving at. When that laugh stopped, I stopped
too. The boys had not yet made their offing, they were still on the full stretch
going the one way, when I had already gone about ship and was sheering off
the other. Like a fool I had come out, doing my five knots; like a fool I went back
again. It must have been the funniest thing to see, and what knocked me silly,
this time no one laughed; only one old woman gave a kind of pious moan, the
way you have heard Dissenters in their chapels at the sermon.
“I never saw such fools of Kanakas as your people here,” I said once to Uma,
glancing out of the window at the starers.
“Savvy nothing,” says Uma, with a kind of disgusted air that she was good at.
And that was all the talk we had upon the matter, for I was put out, and Uma
took the thing so much as a matter of course that I was fairly ashamed.
All day, off and on, now fewer and now more, the fools sat about the west end
of my house and across the river, waiting for the show, whatever that was—fire
to come down from heaven, I suppose, and consume me, bones and baggage.
But by evening, like real islanders, they had wearied of the business, and got
away, and had a dance instead in the big house of the village, where I heard
them singing and clapping hands till, maybe, ten at night, and the next day it
seemed they had forgotten I existed. If fire had come down from heaven or the
earth opened and swallowed me, there would have been nobody to see the
sport or take the lesson, or whatever you like to call it. But I was to find they
hadn’t forgot either, and kept an eye lifting for phenomena over my way.
I was hard at it both these days getting my trade in order and taking stock of
what Vigours had left. This was a job that made me pretty sick, and kept me
from thinking on much else. Ben had taken stock the trip before—I knew I could
trust Ben—but it was plain somebody had been making free in the meantime. I
found I was out by what might easily cover six months’ salary and profit, and I
could have kicked myself all round the village to have been such a blamed ass,
sitting boozing with that Case instead of attending to my own affairs and taking
stock.
However, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. It was done now, and couldn’t
be undone. All I could do was to get what was left of it, and my new stuff (my
own choice) in order, to go round and get after the rats and cockroaches, and to
fix up that store regular Sydney style. A fine show I made of it; and the third
morning when I had lit my pipe and stood in the door-way and looked in, and
turned and looked far up the mountain and saw the cocoanuts waving and
posted up the tons of copra, and over the village green and saw the island
dandies and reckoned up the yards of print they wanted for their kilts and
dresses, I felt as if I was in the right place to make a fortune, and go home again
and start a public-house. There was I, sitting in that verandah, in as handsome
a piece of scenery as you could find, a splendid sun, and a fine fresh healthy
trade that stirred up a man’s blood like sea-bathing; and the whole thing was
clean gone from me, and I was dreaming England, which is, after all, a nasty,
cold, muddy hole, with not enough light to see to read by; and dreaming the
looks of my public, by a cant of a broad high-road like an avenue, and with the
sign on a green tree.
So much for the morning, but the day passed and the devil anyone looked near
me, and from all I knew of natives in other islands I thought this strange.
People laughed a little at our firm and their fine stations, and at this station of
Falesá in particular; all the copra in the district wouldn’t pay for it (I had heard
them say) in fifty years, which I supposed was an exaggeration. But when the
day went, and no business came at all, I began to get downhearted; and, about
three in the afternoon, I went out for a stroll to cheer me up. On the green I saw
a white man coming with a cassock on, by which and by the face of him I knew
he was a priest. He was a good-natured old soul to look at, gone a little
grizzled, and so dirty you could have written with him on a piece of paper.
“Good day, sir,” said I.
He answered me eagerly in native.
“Don’t you speak any English?” said I.
“French,” says he.
“Well,” said I, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do anything there.”
He tried me awhile in the French, and then again in native, which he seemed to
think was the best chance. I made out he was after more than passing the time
of day with me, but had something to communicate, and I listened the harder. I
heard the names of Adams and Case and of Randall—Randall the oftenest—
and the word “poison,” or something like it, and a native word that he said very
often. I went home, repeating it to myself.
“What does fussy-ocky mean?” I asked of Uma, for that was as near as I could
come to it.
“Make dead,” said she.
“The devil it does!” says I. “Did ever you hear that Case had poisoned Johnnie
Adams?”
“Every man he savvy that,” says Uma, scornful-like. “Give him white sand—bad
sand. He got the bottle still. Suppose he give you gin, you no take him.”
Now I had heard much the same sort of story in other islands, and the same
white powder always to the front, which made me think the less of it. For all
that, I went over to Randall’s place to see what I could pick up, and found Case
on the doorstep, cleaning a gun.
“Good shooting here?” says I.
“A 1,” says he. “The bush is full of all kinds of birds. I wish copra was as
plenty,” says he—I thought, slyly—“but there don’t seem anything doing.”
I could see Black Jack in the store, serving a customer.
“That looks like business, though,” said I.
“That’s the first sale we’ve made in three weeks,” said he.
“You don’t tell me?” says I. “Three weeks? Well, well.”
“If you don’t believe me,” he cries, a little hot, “you can go and look at the copra-
house. It’s half empty to this blessed hour.”
“I shouldn’t be much the better for that, you see,” says I. “For all I can tell, it
might have been whole empty yesterday.”
“That’s so,” says he, with a bit of a laugh.
“By-the-bye,” I said, “what sort of a party is that priest? Seems rather a friendly
sort.”
At this Case laughed right out loud. “Ah!” says he, “I see what ails you now.
Galuchet’s been at you.”—
Father Galoshes
was the name he went by most, but
Case always gave it the French quirk, which was another reason we had for
thinking him above the common.
“Yes, I have seen him,” I says. “I made out he didn’t think much of your Captain
Randall.”
“That he don’t!” says Case. “It was the trouble about poor Adams. The last day,
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